The cats and dogs of Levy County got a big boost Saturday as country chart-topper Chris Cagle headlined the Bark-N-Purr Benefit in Bronson. The event, a fundraiser for the Humane Society of Levy County's planned spay, neuter and adoption facility, attracted more than 2,700 festivalgoers, according to organizers' first estimates.
Cagle rocked the soccer field at Bronson Youth League as his stamping, chanting fans sang along to such hits as "What Kinda Gone" and "My Love Goes On and On and On" as well as a sleeper from the new album, "Change Me."
Just before the show got under way, 97.3 K-Country d.j. Big Red introduced Humane Society volunteer James Garcia and Garcia's girlfriend Christy Arnau to the crowd. Arnau looked first confused, then astonished as Garcia knelt before her and asked her to marry him.
"Yes!" she shouted.
Alongside the stage, Garcia's mother, HSLC volunteer Sylvia Schenk, threw her hands in the air.
"Aaaah! She's beautiful!" Schenk said, amid a flurry of congratulations.
The surprise betrothal set the scene for Cagle's electrifying, fan-friendly stage show that, in spite of all the heartbreak songs, celebrated the joys of young love. During the slow songs, the boys and girls stood ankle-deep in the mud and swayed together.
Cagle opened with "Good To Be Back," striding onto the stage to whoops and screams.
A girl perched on a barricade 20 feet from the stage shrieked to her friend, "I stood in the mud for him!"
He repaid her devotion by blasting into such favorites as "The Love Between A Woman And A Man," "Wal-Mart Parking Lot" and "Hey Y'all," then reached back to the parking lot parties of his own childhood with a cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Saturday Night Special."
In the middle of the song, the band vamped for several minutes as Cagle worked his way across the first row of fans, signing every object pushed into his hands. T-shirts, hats, can coolers - even a pink Vera Bradley tote and a muddy Fat Baby riding boot got the Sharpie treatment.
Stopping every few songs to mop his streaming face with a t-shirt provided by front row fans, Cagle thanked the crowd for their part in his success and the success of the Bark-N-Purr benefit.
"This is a wonderful event for your county, and I want to thank you all for thinking of us," he said. He goofed on the name of the event and beneficiary ("I know, something about dogs."), but was quite sincere in his appeal on the Humane Society's behalf.
"I travel with two dogs, and they're like my family," he said. "This is an important thing to support."
Throughout the show, the crush at the stage was about 10 deep, with a breathing space between the melee of girls and boys and the more sedate listeners in the rows of chairs behind them. When Cagle launched into the finale, "Chicks Dig It," the vacuum around the stage was instantly filled as all the fans on their feet ran in close, stomping their feet and shouting the lyrics.
The song ended, the drummer tossed his sticks into the crowd, and the gathering fog filled the spaces where the kids had danced.